By Tony Hozeny
Virgil was glad to escape home for errands. He stopped at the liquor store and bought a six-pack of India pale ale. At the library, he selected a new biography of Harry Truman and the novel Plainsong. “Always got your nose in a book when I’m trying to talk to you,” Barbara said over and over. He texted her that he was going to take a ride in the country. She didn’t answer.
He drove west on US 14, the Suburban warm and humming along. Now after the
storm, the road was clear except for some icy spots. The sky was bright blue, and a brilliant sun turned the snow silver in the tree branches and lit up snow crystals on the ground. The wind blew the soft snow through the sunlight like yellow fog. Pine and fir and cedar and yew branches bent and did not break under the heavy snow, but there were many fallen locust and poplar trees in a wooded stretch along the highway. The lakes and ponds had frozen. Black Earth Creek and many unnamed winding creeks continued to run free.
There was cold purity in the snow cover, and it occurred to him that it was like the purity of isolation.
As he rolled into Richland Center, he scanned the clapboard and redbrick buildings until he saw a café. There was one stool open at the counter. He ordered coffee, a hamburger and hash browns. A farm markets report came on the radio. The price of corn was way down. The food arrived, and it was hot and tasty. For a change, he ate slowly, savoring every bite. Across the way, a worn but still pretty woman was talking quietly to a vacant-eyed, elderly man. Perhaps this was an outing from his nursing home. The woman wore a low-cut gray sweater that showed off her breasts when she moved. She glanced at Virgil and looked quickly away.
“Stop staring at Jenny,” snarled a bearded, heavy-set man sitting near her. All the customers stopped what they were doing and looked at Virgil.
“I wasn’t,” he said calmly, hoping to hide his embarrassment.
The man threw his napkin on the plate. “You sure as hell were. Keep your goddamned eyes to yourself.”
“Friendly place,” Vigil said, signaling for the check. He coughed once, a dry cough, as he walked out.
The wind was blowing the snow off the roofs, like flurries in the sunshine. He coughed once in the sharp air and walked to the corner. Looking at the old buildings, he thought of his flat on the east side of Milwaukee, where he’d lived as a young man, and he remembered a bright, flurrying day like this one, when he’d ducked in and out of the little stores on Brady Street, buying Christmas presents for their son, Sam, and he knew then that he was not going back home.
As he started the truck, his cell rang: Barbara. “Where in God’s name are you? You’ve been gone for over three hours.”
He heard a catch in her voice. “When are you coming home?”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“That’s no answer!”
“I’ve got nothing else to say right now.” He coughed away from the phone. “Goodbye.”
Barbara tried calling twice more. When he reached La Crosse, he stopped at Target and bought what he’d need for his time on the road. He checked into a Holiday Inn and paid for three days.
In the morning, after showering, Virgil coughed a little more than usual, but he reminded himself he’d tested negative several times for COVID, and he’d never run a fever. His forehead was cool now. He went down to the hotel coffee shop. On the bulletin board near the reception desk, he noticed a flyer that read “Swingin’ Seniors Dance Club, TONIGHT, Holiday Inn Rainbow Room, all over 55 welcome!” Then, in smaller print, “Proof of COVID vaccination required.”
He’d always loved dancing, the way it loosened him up after the day’s tensions and guided him away from unpleasant thoughts and memories, loved moving to a beat with Barbara in his arms, but for years now she’d complained that dancing made her knees hurt.
The waitress came over right away. He ordered coffee, bacon extra crisp and scrambled eggs.
During the meal, he resumed reading the Truman biography, then set it aside. He wondered if Barbara ever thought about what they’d lost.
He remembered the day she graduated from college. His parents watched three-year-old Sam, and he took Barbara out for steaks at the Hiawatha Rail Depot Restaurant. They held hands on the way back to the car, which he’d parked in the last row beyond the tracks. It was dusk. They climbed into the back seat. She slid onto his lap. She wore nothing under her pale blue sundress.
Now she called: “Where are you? What do you think you’re doing? I’ve been worried sick.”
“Well, come home now. You’ve had your fun, making me worry. I couldn’t sleep a wink last night. Very selfish of you. Not that you care. You just do whatever you want all the time anyhow.”
He kept his voice light. “I need a break. Think of it like when you and your girlfriends have a spa weekend.”
“That’s ridiculous! That’s planned! I’m not running away from home like you are.”
“Look, Barbara, try to understand. I’ve told you over and over again. I can’t take your
constant criticism anymore. I hate the way we bicker all the time. It’s getting worse and worse.”
“It’s because you don’t listen. You never listen.”
His fingers twitched. He hid a cough. He said, “I’m not doing this again, Barbara. I’m not going to argue with you. We need time apart.”
“What, do you think you can find some little cutie in a bar somewhere? Is that what this is about? You’re an old man. You can’t be a young man again. You’re just going to get yourself in trouble.”
“Wow. You really don’t like me, do you?”
“Call me when you’re done with this nonsense.”
Virgil waved the waitress over and signed the bill. A tall, thin black man walked to the middle of the room.
“Hey, y’all, listen up,” he called. “Anybody got jumper cables?”
“I do,” Virgil said, “let me go get my coat, and I’ll meet you out front.”
The cold hit him like a hammer, hard wind blasting across the parking lot. He coughed. The man waved. He was standing next to a Toyota Corolla.
“Goddamn rental car,” the man said. He popped the hood. “I’m a building inspector, man, down here for a conference, and I’ve got to hope this piece of shit will get me back to Minneapolis.”
Virgil nodded. The man got into his car. Virgil opened the hatch and took the cables out. They were so stiff it was hard to untangle them. His fingers nearly froze, even with gloves on, so he was clumsy with the cables, but he got them hooked up, finally. He signaled, and the man cranked the ignition. After a few minutes, the car started. The man got out and helped Virgil unhook the cables. “Much obliged,” he said. Virgil waved as he drove off.
Virgil went back to his room and read for a couple of hours until he became restless in the quiet. He checked his phone: ten degrees, but the wind had died down to ten miles per hour. He wanted to see the Mississippi River up close again. During those years in college, he loved walking along the path in Riverside Park and studying on a park bench when the weather was good.
Today, the river was running strongly, waves kicking up, a few ice chunks rising and falling in the water. High clouds were thickening in the west. Virgil hoped there wasn’t another storm on the way.
It had been a tense Christmas. Sam hadn’t been able to make it home this year—too busy at the flower shop he managed—but he’d called and sent flowers. Barbara wondered aloud if he were really too busy.
Twenty years ago, Sam had flunked out of college and moved back into his old room, saying he needed time to decide what he wanted to do, but after a year of no progress, Virgil said, “You’re not going to lie around my house doing nothing but smoking weed and playing video games, so either get a job or get out!” Sam got out and kept on going, and for two years they didn’t hear from him at all. Barbara had never forgiven Virgil.
As he was passing some scrawny bushes and low trees on the riverbank, something odd caught his eye. It was a black garbage bag, then two more, and just beyond them, a man lay on his back, his lined face and rough hands and bare ankles grayish-blue, his body stiff under a worn old black jacket and ragged pants. Virgil bent down, but he knew he was too late. There was frost on the man’s nostrils and at the corners of his mouth. Virgil blinked back angry tears. He tried to imagine this man’s last few minutes of life. Did he know he was going to die when he lay down, or was he too cold and hurt and exhausted to form any thoughts at all? Three garbage bags—all he had in this world—were the measure of his vulnerability, as though a man’s life was worthless once he could no longer protect himself.
Virgil called 911. He coughed once and had to repeat himself.
Virgil showed his vaccination card and had his temperature checked and then bought a beer at the Rainbow Room bar.
Barbara texted: I’m lonely. Please come home.
He had no answer for that. He didn’t want to think about her. He estimated there were about sixty dancers, all races, all shapes and sizes, more women than men, all moving to the strong beat laid down by the Ike Miller Blues Band.
Ike, the singer and harp player, announced a shuffle called “Mean Old World.” Virgil thought again of the dead homeless man. He hid a cough and asked a tall black woman to dance. They danced apart. He liked her smile and the way she moved her hips. When it was over, she said, “You’re a good dancer, but just so you know, I’m married. I just like to come out and dance.”
So he circulated and danced. None of the women turned him down. He had his eye on a woman with frosted hair in a tight black sparkly sweater and swirly black knee-length skirt.
When he walked up to her, he saw fine lines in her face and loose skin at her neck; she was
closer to his age than the other dancers. Her warm smile made him believe she’d been watching him, too. She asked his name and said her name was Jodi.
He took her hands in his and led her through a smooth, spirited jitterbug, touching her shoulder, her back, low on her hip.
“When did you join the club?” she asked. “I like the way you dance.”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Oh, are you on the lam? How romantic!”
He laughed, twirling her, letting his palm slide across her hip. “I’m separated.”
“Divorced. Where are you staying?”
The band laid down one solid groove after another. He coughed a couple of times, covering his mouth. Jodi didn’t seem to notice. She felt the beat the same way he did. They danced smoothly, instinctively, their legs brushing, then entwined, their movements fluid and wild.
After the fastest shuffle the band had yet played, he held her close and asked if she wanted a drink.
“No, just dance.” She tapped his chest. “I think we have the same thing on our minds.”
“I like the way you think,” he said.
The band laid down a slow, slow groove. She wrapped her arms around his neck. She locked her thigh between his, and they ground their bodies together in time. He held her close and opened his palm over the firm bare skin where her sweater had ridden up. When the song ended, he kissed her cheek.
“Jodi, do you want to come up to my room for a drink?”
She smiled her warm smile and batted her long eyelashes.
But as soon as they stepped into the room, he began coughing and could not stop. His eyes burned and his chest tightened, he gasped for air, and still the coughing went on and on until
he flopped down on the bed, and then it subsided.
Jodi handed him a glass of water. He took a sip. She said, “Sorry, Virg, but whatever you’ve got, I don’t want to get it, if I don’t have it already. I’m going to leave now.” She wrote her number on the desk notepad. “Maybe you can call me if you feel better.”
“Thanks, Jodi,” he gasped. “And thanks for a nice evening.”
He slept between coughing fits. In the morning, he looked in the bathroom mirror, and there was blood crusted on his lips—had he bit them in the night? But then he began coughing, coughing hard, and he coughed bright red blood into the pale-yellow sink.
Virgil, in a mask and gown, waited in an emergency room cubicle for the results of an X-ray and bloodwork. They’d given him something to stop the coughing, and he was hooked up to a couple of IVs. He felt weak from lack of sleep and now from worry.
The doctor, an Asian woman, sat down on the bed. He could see only her eyes above the mask. They showed concern.
“Your COVID test is negative. How long have you had that cough?”
“I don’t know. A few months, I guess. It never bothered me much. I felt fine.”
“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the X-rays showed what looks like a tumor in the lower lobe of your right lung. The bloodwork is abnormal, too. We’re going to admit you for more tests, an MRI, and of course a biopsy. Just lie back now and try to relax.”
He closed his eyes and suddenly felt all the ways he’d failed Barbara over the years, the hurt she’d revealed in last night’s text. What could he expect from her now? What would she say when he called?
Tony Hozeny is the author of the novels Driving Wheel and My House Is Dark and numerous short stories. He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and taught creative writing at four colleges. Over the past three years, he has placed seventeen stories in literary magazines. Three of the stories have been anthologized. He is married and has three children and three grandchildren.